Wednesday, June 11, 2014

My two cents

There's been some back and forth lately about whether or not children's books are to be enjoyed by adults, and since I'm about to do a series of posts about four picture books I bought recently, it seems a good time to put in my two cents about the issue.

First, the basic truth:

It's fair to ask, "Can a child get any enjoyment out of this highly technical manual on chemical reactions that doesn't even have any cool pictures?" for obvious reasons. Children can't understand that book. They're free to flip through, but most will make no connection and quickly move on. Adults, however, can jump backward, sideways, and often leap a little ways forward (or at least know how to do so when needed) to experience something past, present, different, or new. They can connect not only with things their age group connects with, but with anything from as far back as they can remember and as far forward, sideways, or under, as they can imagine, but they don't even have to try that hard with children's stories because they're about family, friendship, love, fear, adversity, life. This ain't a stretch, people. Of course adults connect with them. Adults write them, after all.

Second, the argument for simplicity:

Those repetitive board books that encourage learning the alphabet or practicing sounds or even the ones with tactile patches can be interesting. If you, as an adult, are above considering the most basic joy of having an intelligent awareness of your physical surroundings and the building blocks of language, then, as Harry Potter would say, "You're the weak one. You'll never know love or friendship, and I feel sorry for you." Okay that might be a bit harsh. And actually he only said that in the movie (which I'm also allowed to enjoy as much as I like). But still--stop being a poo-poo pants and enjoy the feeling of a bright yellow fuzzy ducky or the sound of a good rhyme once in a while--not only because they're fun (you old fart-blossom) but because they speak to a deep and basic need that someone who knows about psychology and stuff could probably explain really well.

Third, the counter to one of the more common arguments:

It really is creepy when a forty-year-old woman gets weird over an old guy in the body of a teenage boy in a young adult vampire novel. I totally get that. But there are creepy people throughout this good world, and the creepiness has less to do with the material being creeped over and more to do with the person creeping. Plenty of adults can read a teenage love story, enjoy it for what it is, reminisce about how their high school relationships were much less orchestrated and sparkly, and move on to the next book. Don't blame the book. Blame the creep.

And fourth, the TKO:

If you think children's books are just children's books, then you probably don't know much about children's books. Many, like the picture books I'll be talking about, are at once stunning works of art and stunning works of poetry, and some happen to serve an important cultural purpose. Three of the books I'll talk about are by Jerry Pinkney, who has won award after award covering everything from fairy tales (which are not children's stories) to Bible stories (also not children's) to folktales (certainly not exclusively children's) to family stories. Throughout his career, his illustrations have not only provided breathtaking interpretations of classics like Puss in Boots, Aesop's Fables, and The Jungle Book, but his works and collaborations have filled a gaping hole in the children's book world by, for example, painting Little Red Riding Hood and The Little Match Girl as black girls. Do I need to explain how white the children's book world has been in this country? Do I really need to talk about the fact that there are highly educated and insightful people who could argue you into a freaking hole about why this matters on a grand scale? If I were one of those people, I'd bury you right now, but as I'm not, I'll just say that Pinkney has helped change the world through picture books. How is that not relevant for adults? An exhibit of his work is traveling around some of the biggest art museums in the country as we speak, and I was lucky enough to see it at the High in Atlanta.

Now, then. Get up and go buy a picture book to replace that stupidly huge book of maps you've got collecting dust on your coffee table. Everyone knows you never look at those maps. Stop acting like you love maps so much. And stop acting like you don't wish Santa were real. You know you do. Well guess what: in children's books, if only for a moment, he is.